November 2018 saw the 40th anniversary of the assassination of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office.
EVEN though he died years before I was born, he has had a huge influence on me intellectually, politically and spiritually. He fought for gay rights at a time when they were under direct threat in the United States.
Proposition 6 for example aimed to ban gay men and women from teaching in California’s public schools. It was so extreme even Ronald Reagan was against it! Partly due to Milk’s spirited fightback and towering leadership however, it was defeated by public ballot just three weeks before his death.
Harvey’s international profile has risen following the release of the feature film Milk in 2008 with Sean Penn in the title role, but the fact he still isn’t a household name, even amongst the gay community, is hugely disappointing to say the least as we can learn so much from him.
Yes, he was the charismatic gay icon of his time that burst into City Hall and faced down Prop 6, but Milk stood for so much more than just gay rights, and I would argue that in an era seemingly devoid of inspirational political leadership such as ours we need Harvey Milk more than ever.
Here’s five reasons why;
1. He fought for not just the civil but also the economic rights of all marginalised groups in San Francisco aside from the LGBT+ communities (the Asian community, African-Americans, Latinos, senior citizens). He also set up local associations to protect small businesses against downtown corporate interests. In our world of austerity, raising far-right nationalism, and high streets dominated by globalised chains, we are screaming out for a champion for these causes.
2. He described himself as being ‘too conservative’ for the left and ‘too liberal’ for the right as he was a fiscal conservative but also believed in social equality and justice, and the liberalisation of strict anti-drug laws. Whatever your stance on these issues, Harvey’s political perspectives encompassed both left and right-wing views, and he actively sort to build coalitions and consensus as he was desperate to prove that the political system could deliver enlightenment and greater wealth, health and happiness for all. How the Brexit process would have benefitted from similar input.
3. To get elected he took advantage of San Francisco’s move away in the mid-1970s from city-wide ballots to ‘ward politics’ where each ward in the city would elect their own representative. This meant less ‘career politicians’ in the mix, and more of a connection between citizens and their elected officials as they were much more likely to know them personally. Milk believed this, combined with his radical gay politics, had revolutionary potential. To face and overcome the challenges our society will face in the 21st century, we urgently need a much more meaningful and productive dialogue between citizens and those elected to represent them, at both local and national level.
4. Milk lived most of his life in the closet before coming out at the age of 40 and moving from his native New York to California. He worked in a variety of professions during that time including as a deep-sea diver in the US Navy, a public school teacher, an insurance actuary and researcher on Wall Street, and on Broadway backstage. He was about as far from your David Cameron-esque career politician as you could get and brought real life experience to the corridors of local power. He had the ‘common touch’ and managed to win over even hardened union leaders who wouldn’t have gone near an openly gay candidate or public official with a barge pole previously. We need our leaders to truly understand the world that most of us live in.
5. He eventually saw coming out as a political tool and he was even prepared on occasion to ‘out’ those who still refused to do it themselves. Many did and do vehemently disagree with such an approach, but this highlights another reason why Milk had genuine appeal; he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, both inside and outside of the legislative chamber. On his first day in office for example he openly stated his opposition to the election of Dianne Feinstein as President of the Board of Supervisors, but she was duly elected on a majority vote. When the Board was asked to vote again to make the decision unanimous, Milk risked political suicide by again voting against her, the only Board member to do so the second time round. Outside of City Hall he insisted on taking public transport instead of official cars when on public duty as he felt that he couldn’t preach to citizens about improvements needed to the system and then not use it himself. How many local and national government ministers can you name that go out of their way to set a similar example?
On the evening of Milk’s death, thousands walked silently from Castro Street to City Hall to honour their slain hero. One placard, held high above the crowd and illuminated by candle light, read Harvey Milk lives. We better hope so.
To quote Cleve Jones, Harvey Milk’s close friend, “He was an ordinary man, he was not a saint, he was not a genius, his personal life was often in disarray, he died penniless…and yet by his example and by his actions he most certainly changed the world.”
An appropriate way of honouring Harvey Milk’s memory would be first that our whole community give him the full recognition he deserves, and secondly to demand of our elected officials that they meet the high standards Milk set, for the good of us all.
Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978).